Floods furore highlights why we must be honest with the public

The recent floods and the way they have been handled has brought to the fore the importance of ethical comms, writes Greater Manchester Police's Amanda Coleman

How can organisations be more honest, asks Amanda Coleman
How can organisations be more honest, asks Amanda Coleman

There are two sides to every story. We all know that and in fact we recognise that there are often more than two sides to every story. As communicators, being able to explain a situation is what we do, making each complex issue as easy to understand as possible.

When you work for any public sector organisation there is a huge amount of scrutiny over every statement you put out. Every word will be dissected carefully, either by the media or members of the public. Increasingly, public sector communicators may find themselves or their work called before select committees or other bodies.

The floods around Christmas were shocking and had a huge impact on many communities. I was surprised to find large parts of Greater Manchester affected, particularly as some had not been known to suffer from flooding in the past. The media descended on the North of England and reported events. But once the emergency had moved into recovery phase, the actions of agencies were reviewed by the media and the families affected.

I am sure many people will have followed what happened regarding the Environment Agency chairman’s whereabouts and the statements made. In short, it had said he was with family, which was accurate but he was with his family in Barbados. What has followed has been a lot of discussion about whether the initial statement had been honest, or if anyone involved had deliberately lied.

Many years ago I worked for the Environment Agency and I know there are a lot of people who do great work and it rarely gets recognised. However, the statement does raise important questions for PR professionals about what represents lying and how organisations can be honest.

At the heart of this is the continuing discussion around a code of ethics for public relations professionals. In recent years there has been a drive for clarity about what acceptable behaviour is and what it is not. On a personal note I have this from two fronts; a focus on ethics within public relations and as a member of the police service. For years, we have been busy focusing on delivering comms support to organisations but neglected to talk about the work we do. It has become something of a ‘dark art’ and the lack of transparency is what is leading to heavy scrutiny today.

We can put things down to semantics but it isn’t enough. It is important to review every word that we put into, and keep out of, statements. Why have we used specific words and what have we failed to say? With continued cuts the pressure is on public sector communicators to deliver and deliver quickly.

If we are not careful we sacrifice the quality for the speed of what we produce. I am not sure there is a defensible position of being busy, or not recognising the impact of the words you have put together.

Amanda Coleman is director of corporate comms at Greater Manchester Police


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